If the mission depicted in Kon-Tiki had a motto, it’d be, “Here’s hoping this works.” Much of the film takes place on a primitive balsa-wood raft that’s meant to float 5,000 miles from Peru to the Polynesian islands. The vessel’s course relies on ocean currents to make the journey, and if anything goes wrong, six men will be stranded in the middle of the ocean.
An endeavor of this sort requires a dangerous amount of obsession and determination. Without the conviction that the raft would work, there’d be no crew. Without the mad belief that the project had to come to fruition, there’d be no money or resources to make it happen. But Thor Heyerdahl is a man obsessed with wild dreams.
Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen plays Heyerdahl, a Norwegian adventurer who conceived and executed this raft trip in the 1940s. Heyerdahl made an Oscar-winning 1950 documentary about his mission, and this new film dramatizes it with slick visuals and high production value.
While popular opinion holds that the early Polynesians migrated from Asia, Heyerdahl explored the area and found evidence that he believes shows influence from a South American culture. However, no one will publish his observations because they’re simply not plausible—especially since South Americans had no way of traveling to the islands.
Heyerdahl doesn’t buy this line of thinking, and decides to prove his point with a hard-to-top publicity stunt. He devises an expedition riding the same kind of raft that the natives might have traveled in 1,500 years ago. A balsa-wood raft seems like the sort of thing that would only be used for short-term trips, but if the currents work with it, Heyerdahl thinks they can go much, much farther. Heyerdahl’s men build the raft solely from materials that would have been available to the ancient population.
The story immediately brings to mind classic tales of obsession like Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, about a man trying to pull a ship over a mountain. Kon-Tiki doesn’t feel quite as unhinged. Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg aim for a sleeker, more polished depiction of their subject. Sometimes they belabor their points a bit, forcing in too many scenes about Heyerdahl’s wife (Agnes Kittelsen) when a more raw, less self-aware structure may have proved more effective.
Kon-Tiki really comes alive due to the inherent suspense that accompanies everyday life on the boat. The improvised rigs and their functionality are constantly in question, but the character dynamics really ratchet the tension. The simple act of waiting for a current that may never come proves thrilling. Heyerdahl’s crew is an odd combination of handsome adventurers and misfits. The first person to join the endeavor is Herman Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), a chubby engineer who romanticizes an adventure of this sort because his life up to now has been a depressing bore.
Because the film takes the time to establish character dynamics before the voyage, there’s a real payoff once the raft hits the water. There’s a big difference between the romanticism of the planning and the gritty reality of the mission. The men aboard bring together such a bizarre combination of experiences and personalities that there’s real question over whether or not they can live together in confined quarters.
Heyerdahl’s personality adds an element of uncertainty to everything. When poor Herman wants to ensure survival, Thor wants to preserve historic authenticity. The tribe wouldn’t have had access to wires, Heyerdahl thinks, so neither should he. Rønning and Sandberg find an impressive array of shots on the raft that feel unified rather than showy, and get intimately involved in the characters.
Hagen’s performance shows an unblinking determination that makes every near-death moment more unpredictable. Where most people would immediately save their own skin, Heyerdahl worries first and foremost about the mission. A scene in which he floats out on a hand-made floatation device while sharks swim below, all to get a shot for his documentary, is particularly scary. You simply don’t know what he’ll do next, and that’s a true rarity.
Directors: Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg
Writers: Petter Skavlan, Allan Scott
Starring Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Odd-Magnus Williamson, Agnes Kittelsen, Gustaf Skarsgård, Jacob Oftebro and Tobias Santelmann
Release Date: April 26, 2013
NOTE: Due to the logistics of financing, the filmmakers shot two versions of Kon Tiki at once—one in English and one in Norwegian. This review is of the Norwegian version, which received a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination, but the English version will be in theaters, too.